Janet Taylor Lisle
Janet Taylor Lisle was born in Englewood, N.J. in 1947 and brought shortly afterward by her parents to live quietly in Little Compton. Her father, Alden Taylor, had piloted bombing missions over Germany and France during WWII and needed rest to recover. Sakonnet’s fields, woods and ocean beaches formed her first memories. The coastal New England town had just been exited by the US Army. Gaping gun sites and barracks still pocked the landscape. She later wrote about the military’s wartime occupation in her 2000 novel The Art of Keeping Cool.
Early Saturday morning we heard the big guns were pulling close to Sachem’ Head. The word was they’d begin passing through town sometime between ten and eleven, so my cousin Elliot and I walked up Parson’s Lane right after breakfast.
They were mighty sixteen-inch bore naval guns, two of them—the largest and most powerful long-range weapons at the time. I’ll never forget how the first tremendous body rose over the hill. An escort of armed soldiers walked soberly along side.
“Stand back,” I told Elliot. “It might speed up coming down.”
The Taylor family moved to Farmington, CT in 1951 but returned every summer to visit Little Compton grandparents and relatives. Janet and her younger brothers, eventually numbering four, grew up going to local schools around Hartford. She attended a nearby girl’s boarding school from age 14 and went on to graduate in 1969 from Smith College, in Northampton, MA, majoring in English. That year she married and joined VISTA, (Volunteers in Service to America) with her husband. The young couple was assigned to Atlanta, Georgia where they lived and worked in poor communities, he as a VISTA lawyer for Legal Services, she as a community volunteer in a public housing project. The experiences and the friendships they made would find a way indirectly into many of her novels for young people, including her Newbery Honor book Afternoon of the Elves.
“I guess I better tell you something right now before we go any further,” Sara-Kate said to Hillary. Her voice was soft but forceful. “Nobody insults these elves and gets away with it. Not while I’m here. And nobody insults them by mistake either,” she added, seeing that Hillary was about to protest. “Before you say anything, you’ve got to put yourself in the position of the elf. That way, you don’t make mistakes, okay?”
After VISTA, She enrolled in journalism courses at Georgia State University with the idea of writing about the communities she’d worked with. Over the next five years, she reported for newspapers around Atlanta and later, after a stint in California and a new marriage, in Westchester County, NY. When her daughter was born in 1977, she left reporting and began to write at home. Her first novel for children, The Dancing Cats of Applesap, was published in 1984. In it, she reimagined her childhood hometown, Farmington, and an old-fashioned drug store infested with abandoned cats, “every one of which had been found starving out on the Applesap streets.”
They slept in piles dangling their tails down the cosmetic cases. They prowled in droves around the bottoms of the cigar and candy racks. They licked their nails on top of the comic books and cleaned their ears behind the cash register. Whenever a customer came into the store, cat faces looked out from every crook and cranny to see who it was. And a hundred cat tails twitched.
The book was a critical success and the beginning of her writing career. In 1993, she moved with her daughter and husband, Richard Lisle, to Little Compton to live year round. Her novels The Art of Keeping Cool (2000), Black Duck (2003) and The Crying Rocks (2006) all draw on local Rhode Island history, a subject she grew to love for its long roots in her own family and for its connection to America’s early history in New England. She wrote two volumes covering Little Compton history in conjunction with the Little Compton History Society: First Light Sakonnet, 1660-1820, published in 2010; A Home By the Sea, 1820-1950, pub. 2012.
Janet Taylor Lisle’s writing career now spans nearly forty years. Besides the Newbery, her books for young readers have receivedthe Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction,Holland’s Zilveren Griffel and Italy’s Premio Andersen Awardamong other honors. She continues to live and write year round in Little Compton and presently keeps company with a single cat refugee from the streets. He is learning to dance.
Janet Taylor Lisle